NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s new superintendent of schools, in his first address on the clock Tuesday to the Board of Education, laid out two pieces of bad news and sought to dispel an urban legend.
Norwalk’s Special Education program is further in the red than thought when the 2015-16 school budget was approved last month, Steven Adamowski said, announcing that he is going to ask the state Department of Education to audit Norwalk’s SPED. The money that was expected to fund 10 curriculum and site instructional directors did not come through, he said. But a rumor that there are an unusually high number of District 99 children who are not assigned is not true, he said, calling it an “urban legend.”
That last piece came with a suggestion to the Board: Consider giving the parents of the South Norwalk District 99 children Columbus Magnet School as a first choice in the 2016-17 school year.
The audit and a possible contract with the State Education Resource Center (SERC) would allow a new Special Education director, when hired, to implement a plan rather than spend the first six months on the job ferreting out the issues, Adamowski said.
“It appears that we have more extensive issues in Special Education than were previously known or reported,” Adamowski said. “I feel these fall into three broad categories. The first is that there may in fact be further cost overruns for outside placements that were determined in the past school year that were not converted to contracts.”
Maureen Ruby, who is leaving her job here as a literacy specialist and interim Special Education director, studied the department and came up with this information, Adamowski said.
Contracts were not given to the business office, Adamowski said:
- IEP decisions for outside placements have not been converted into contracts so you don’t know the price, but it appears to be significant additional liability in that area.
- There appear to be some areas of the Special Ed budget that were reduced, where caseloads for ’15-’16 do not warrant the reduction or caseloads have changed in the interim area of time.
- Several program areas may be out of compliance or do not reflect best practice or embrace the concept of the least restrictive environment for children.
The causes are complex, he said, but, “My impression at this point is these issues are systematic in nature and beyond dealing with them one at a time.”
BoE member Mike Barbis asked Adamowski if he could define the magnitude of the Special Education cost. Adamowski said he was reluctant to do so.
“There are a set of liabilities that appear to be somewhere in the range of $1 to $2 million, but there are also students coming back from outside placements that have also not been considered,” Adamowski said. “Those will provide some offset in savings. There is also a bit of confusion around the extent to which some of these liabilities may have involved an existing contract.”
Finding a replacement for former Special Education Director Christine Fensore will be difficult, Adamowski said.
“This is a very hard area to fill,” he said. “Of the areas of durational shortage, it is the greatest in Connecticut. It is the number one shortage area.”
Of 167 districts, 16 had vacancies or temporary special education directors, he said.
Although he may need to appoint someone from within to fill in for a short while, he has reached out statewide and found some good possibilities for a new director, he said.
“In many of these issues you get different versions of a story, depending on who you talk to. You really need someone with expertise in this area… I am optimistic at this point that we may be able to attract an outstanding person. They will come from another district. This is a job that requires someone with expertise.”
Norwalk will only be able to fund seven curriculum and site instructional directors, Adamowski said, although former Norwalk interim Superintendent of Schools James Connelly said at the last meeting that 10 directors could be funded.
This goes back to the loss of a Dalio Foundation grant that funded the positions. Connelly had been told that the state’s Priority School District grant would fund the CISDs, but the state has “affected a rescission of 8.5 percent” of that grant, Adamowski said. It’s impossible to use the grant for the positions now, he said.
“To do so without that 8.5 percent would involve cutting other positions,” Adamowski said. “There are a number of teaching positions – this is quite unusual in my experience – but there are a number of teaching positions that are partially or wholly funded on that grant. … These are fundamental positions. They are not generally positions that would be funded with a Priority School District grant.”
He announced a system for splitting up the seven CISDs based on the size of the schools; Jefferson and Kendall Elementary Schools will get a fulltime CISD, while Brookside, Cranbury and Marvin will get a .8-time CISD, Adamowski said.
“(That’s) as close as I can get in a coherent manner that would allow the sharing of these positions at these schools,” Adamowski said.
Next year the district has to look at funding fulltime assistant principals at Kendall and Jefferson, he said.
The positions may be used in a slightly different way than Dalio understood them, he said, rattling off, “literacy program,” “core knowledge,” and a “more effective implementation of mClass reading, K-3 assessments,” as well as a “more effective and consistent evaluation of teachers in the building.”
The statewide standard is 20 to 25 teachers to one administrator for evaluations to be done well, he said.
“Without proper staffing of a school to do that, the principal simply runs around, spending all their time on the evaluating systems and cannot run the school and cannot address the other organizational aspects of it.”
Two central office positions may be consolidated into one within the next couple of weeks, which would free up some money to help deal with the situation, he said.
“There’s been some churn and discussion in the community, and urban legend has it that there are 300 unassigned 99s,” Adamowski said. “For someone new to the district this is a mystery.”
District 99 children live in an area of South Norwalk that does not have a home school.
There aren’t 300 children who aren’t going to a neighborhood school, but 160, Adamowski said, and of that, the majority are out-of-attendance-area requests, not District 99 children. They’re incoming kindergartners.
“You don’t have these large numbers of students who need to be placed every year,” he said.
Of 114 out-of-area requests, only 35 are new and 79 are renewals, he said. The district practice of having parents reapply every year should be discontinued, he said.
District 99 children have all been assigned, he said, but there may be children registering late or moving in.
“I don’t think that having a policy in which there are a group of families who are assigned to a school by Aug. 15 and don’t even have a choice in expressing what school they want to go to, simply are assigned, I don’t think that meets the standard that we want for all our families,” Adamowski said.
And it may change.
“Consider that, beginning in ’16-’17, the kindergarten students from area that has no school be given first preference in the magnet school lottery in March, rather than involuntary assignment by Aug. 15,” Adamowski said. “This puts the parents in the position of choosing. I think it enhances our magnet programs in their historic traditional role of providing a basis for voluntary desegregation of choice. I think it frankly treats these families as more valued clients than the current practice may.”